Special Report: IBM's team remembers the task

Twenty years on, some of the creators of the first IBM PC talk about what it was like to take part in history
Written by Charles Cooper, Contributor

Twenty years after helping change the direction of computing, participants in the project to develop the first IBM PC say they were concerned less about making history than about making deadline.

"We didn't have any expectation that we were going to change the world," said Bill Lowe, the executive responsible for proposing that IBM build a personal computer and establish a beachhead in a nascent market then dominated by brands such as Apple Computer, Commodore and Atari. "We could see that the world was changing; Apple was attracting a lot of attention from IBM developers, and we wanted IBM developers to work on IBM products."

But one decision did end up changing the world -- or at least the computer world. IBM opted to build its system using off-the-shelf parts, a radical departure from the way things traditionally got done at Big Blue, recalled Noel Fallwell, one of the original dozen members of the project, which ultimately wound up headquartered in Boca Raton, Florida.

"Traditional development meant that the development engineers used the IBM component catalogs of parts that would go into a computer system," he said. "At that time, we made most of our own silicon chips and devices. We engineers in development had to construct our designs around these parts that were available to us."

But with new microprocessors and peripheral chips available from the likes of Intel and Motorola, the thinking was that new outside processors could be incorporated into IBM's product line.

"They believed that each I/O (input/output) device could have its own low-cost CPU, while the system unit could have a dedicated CPU chip," Fallwell said. Before long, the team had a unit based on a Motorola 68000 processor. It was called the "Black Mariah" because it was painted black.

The work was presented to IBM corporate as the way of the future. Corporate resistance melted away when the brass saw the cost and time advantages of building a system in this fashion.

That, in turn, led to a proof-of-concept program that turned out a family of systems with standalone printers designed with components bought from outside of IBM -- including the Intel 8088 processor that ultimately powered the IBM PC.

"Did I think that this was to result in an historic event? No," Fallwell said. "I felt that it was just the natural evolution of IBM changing the way that it developed products to compete in the marketplace. We clearly held concepts and processes that prevented rapid introduction of new ideas and competitive answers to market issues.

"It brought new processes to IBM and changed the way in which we delivered products," he continued. "That is what I saw. In itself, we got the elephant to dance. I did not see our introduction of the PC as a world historic event."

Yet by not following Apple Computer's decision to use a proprietary design, IBM also left the door open for a crop of upstarts to follow in its footsteps and basically clone the PC, using industry-standard chips and peripherals and Microsoft's MS-DOS software. Almost overnight, a multibillion-dollar industry was born.

Patty McHugh, the only female member among the original 12 engineers, said she similarly gave little thought to the idea of making history. All she wanted was to work on something "cool".

"When we started out, none of us had any idea how big this product would become or how it would impact business and personal lives," she said. "It was the coolest thing we'd ever been asked to do."

McHugh, now a director of new business development at IBM, was thrilled by the opportunity to break IBM tradition by using off-the-shelf components and looking beyond IT professionals.

"We were...designing a computer that would be purchased by real people...for their own personal use," she said. "Very cool. And very radical for IBM."

After all was said and done, Mark Dean, who joined the Boca Raton project in 1979 and is now an IBM Fellow and vice president of systems research, said the biggest surprise was the response from the market. "We sold more in the first few months then we had planned to sell in the life of the system," he said.

Lowe, whose role included forecasting demand for the new PC, reported back to the company's senior management that he expected IBM would sell 220,000 units in a three-year period.

"People now come up and ask, 'Why such a small number?'" he said. "But you have to realise that this was larger than the installed base of all of IBM's computers at the time."

"We hoped it would be a successful project," added Fallwell. "No one ever considered that we were going to change the world -- we were too busy working on the product and getting it right."

Another member of the original project, Dave Bradley, seems bemused by all the attention as the latest anniversary approaches.

"I was interviewed several times for the 10th anniversary, and several people seemed to be writing books about that time," said Bradley, now a member of IBM's Academy of Technology. "Nothing happened for the 15th anniversary, so the date 12/8/81 means a lot more for this 20th anniversary just because there seems to be a lot more attention."

He offered one explanation, suggesting that the growth of the Internet was made possible by the existence of so many personal computers.

"Actually, it is one of the most significant events of my life -- although I didn't know it at the time," Bradley said. "And so now, I'm known as the guy who invented Control-Alt-Delete."

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